Thursday, March 03, 2011


Photo: Annie Leibovitz

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which has been in previews since late November, has blown through at least $65 million dollars and three lead producers. Four actors have been injured. The opening has been delayed five times, and there is talk that the latest planned opening night, March 15, will be put off yet again.

The creative team has shrugged off these setbacks with fatuous excuses. Director Julie Taymor has explained that Spider-Man is less a mere “musical” than a “circus rock-‘n’-roll drama” that celebrates one of the most important myths of our time. Bono, who composed the music with U2 bandmate the Edge, told the Times that Spider-Man has been delayed as much as it has been because They Will Sell No Wine Before Its Time: “We’re wrestling with the same stuff as Rilke, Blake, ‘Wings of Desire,’ Roy Lichtenstein, the Ramones—the cost of feeling feelings, the desire for connections when you’re separate from others.” The producers are more candid, saying the delays are necessary to let the creative team focus in on the more deficient aspects of the show: the plot and score. Details, details.

The mere presence of a pricey musical that barely functions properly or makes any sense while patrons are asked to fork over more than $200 for some seats has prompted debates about consumer rights, worker safety and the ethics of reviewing a show before it officially opens. Does Broadway need a $65 million show to begin with?

Not this one.

Even the worst Broadway flops can have bright spots. Lost in the drab muddle of Paul Simon's The Capeman, for example, were a couple of great doo-wop numbers and a near-perfect starry rooftop scene. In Spider-Man, these shining moments come at the beginning of the show, which starts in the middle of the action: Mary Jane (a hard-working Jennifer Damiano) is dangling from a bridge! Will Spidey (a dazed Reeve Carney) leap from the Chrysler Building to save her in time?

Nothing after that is nearly as good. In her exploration of legend, Greek drama, aerial stunts, and how one actually Turns Off the aforementioned Dark, Taymor forgets that the Marvel Comics Spider-Man was an awkward, working-class kid from Queens whose peculiar physical gifts enabled him to kick ass and save lives, but not make many friends. For all the visual set-pieces and lengthy exposition, not a single character in this production—including, heartbreakingly, Peter Parker and Mary Jane—has any development, trajectory or motivation. Taymor’s contribution to the story, the spider-goddess-nemesis-whatever Arachne, contributes nothing save more confusion and one truly bizarre number involving a kickline of chorines dressed as spiders in tawdry underwear, singing something about sex and shoes.

In Spider-Man, Taymor can't tell a story (her greatest successes are adaptations of a Disney movie and Shakespeare plays) and she can't stage a scene unless her actors are swaddled in elaborate costumes, draped in scenery or hiding behind enormous masks. Even more distracting than some of the cheap-looking sets are the abrupt transitions between scenes in which monsters, villains and multiple Spider-Men bring the show to something approaching life, and those in which plain old people, devoid of camouflage, stand around spouting wooden exposition and sounding alternately like they are trapped in a bad screwball comedy, a John Hughes film, a grindhouse horror flick, or a cheesy sex-ed filmstrip about how, as Peter’s uncle puts it, “Puberty can be hard.”

The "Geek Chorus" (get it?) of four comic-book readers may be writing the story. Or maybe they are part of the story. Either way, they are neither interesting nor amusing enough for us to care about them. Same goes for all the villains save Patrick Page's gleeful Green Goblin, who seems like he’s in another show entirely. All the other villains are introduced early in act II. As they strut down a catwalk, a guy in dreadlocks sings about them in an insultingly thick Jamaican accent while accompanying himself on an empty pickle tub. After the number, the drummer disappears, and eventually, so do all the villains. Who were they, where did they come from, and where did they go?

The sound design is good and the orchestra is excellent. Too bad about the songs. At root, U2 is a post-punk band that made itself into an arena darling by matching swagger with introspection. U2 works with layers of sound that repeat, slowly entwine and build gradually in volume and density into petulant, anthemic proclamations. But what works well in front of 40,000 screaming fans at a stadium quickly becomes tedious in a theater. Each song develops in the same way, robbing the show of energy and surprise. The only time the music serves the drama is during the wordless chase scenes—such as a black-and-white sequence with bad guys in giant masks hauling bags of money—when the repetition and layering convey a sense of urgency.

Near the end of Act I the night I went, a stuntman playing Spider-Man (Stunter-Man? Stuntey?) got trapped on the balcony and the show stopped—to raucous applause. Was the audience, deprived thus far of much that could be called entertainment, hoping for a clever ad lib or a fatal plunge into the orchestra seats? Both?

Theater is theater until it ceases to be live, and the second act of Spider-Man is as dead as dead can be. At one point, Taymor puts Spidey alone on stage to pantomime a fight with cartoon images projected on the screen behind him. Wii Broadway.

Even at its prettiest and most interesting moments, and there were a few, this show got no emotional response from me except the fear that it would never end, trapping me forever in front of a huge projection of cartoon bad guys. This is not what Aristotle had in mind when he discussed catharsis. Nor is the pity I felt for the artists and theater-goers whose time this musical has wasted. There is no saving Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, no matter how many more times opening night is put off. This broken project needs to open and close, so that all involved can lick their wounds and get back to putting on shows worth watching.

(seen Wednesday evening, March 2; BroadwayBox special offer; row W on the aisle.)


JB said...

What a pompous and arrogant commentary. You're guilty of the same fatuousness of which you accuse Taymor and her colleagues.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I have to agree with the idea that Aristotle, and many since, in developing theatrical criticism never intended the spectator to feel pity and fear for the actors. The goal of dramatic theory was to create a text that encouraged responses that were useful for the spectator (and dramatically involving as well.) Too bad Taymor has gotten so far from herself on this one, "Lion King" has some really lovely ideas.